(USA TODAY by Dan Vergano) After months of secret digging, antiquity officials in Peru announced Thursday the discovery of an ancient tomb filled with golden treasure, three queens, and the servants who accompanied them into the afterlife some 1,200 years ago.
Called El Castillo de Huarmey, (the Castle on the River Huarmey) the stepped pyramid mausoleum on the coast of southern Peru has been dubbed the "Temple of the Dead" by the National Geographic Society-funded research team led by Milosz Giersz of Poland's University of Warsaw. Discovery of the rare unlooted tomb by the Peruvian-Polish team makes clear that the ancient Wari were rulers of southern Peru before 1000 AD, prior to the advent of the Inca Empire.
"I was really very, very surprised to find the site unlooted," Giersz says. Essentially the burial chamber that the team uncovered, after removing 30 tons of gravel from a passageway, was a tomb set aside solely for female nobility at the site, once a palace from where Wari overlords ruled over some 40,000 people.
Located beneath a fallen tower, the mausoleum was excavated in secret over several months this year to deter looters. Inside, the tomb were 1,200 artifacts, including gold earrings, silver and copper jewelry, bronze axes and silver bowls. They also found small burial chambers for three women rulers, and just beyond those about 53. women buried in rows, about a half-dozen of them likely human sacrifices victims buried with the queens. The queens were buried with golden weaving tools. A child, likely a boy, was also buried in a separate chamber, denoting higher status
"Unusual and rare, we don't see female high-status rulers in the art of the Wari very often," says archaeologist Christina Conlee of Texas State University in San Marcos, who was not on the discovery team. "To find an unlooted tomb like this one is a big deal."
A stone throne room outside the tomb likely was a place where the bodies of the ancient queens were venerated by the Wari, taken there for display during ceremonies, the team suggests.
About 40,000 people lived around the mausoleum site, once part of a palace compound that served as a home to those rulers. Ancestor worship and the use of their remains in rulership rituals and ceremonies was a widespread practice seen in many Central and South American cultures prior to the discovery of the New World.
'"We are now seeing here the Wari set the pattern for the Inca who came later, with evidence both of empire-building and an ancestor cult," Giersz says. The team hopes to continue excavations at the site and see it become a museum for the public to visit.